The future, according to Kathy Sierra
Kathy Sierra blogged
earlier today six years ago (!) that “The future is not in learning“; the future lies, instead, in “unlearning.” This sounds awfully like another example of the geek anti-intellectualism that I love to hate; we’ll see about that. Since that’s how the post comes across–beginning with the title–it has already gotten a lot of attention. Geeks just love to hear that, in the future, they won’t have to learn things. They just love to talk about how they’ll be able to upload their memories to the Internet, how Internet search makes memorization a waste of time, how they just can’t make themselves read books anymore, how the intellectual authority of experts is passe, and how the liberal arts and college generally are a waste of time. For all the world it seems they really hate learning. So when Kathy Sierra says that the future is not in learning, they start salivating.
In fact, Sierra’s main message is excellent, one that is not at all anti-intellectual. She’s saying that since the times they are a-changin’ so much, we have to roll with them faster and faster, as change accelerates. This is itself very old news, but it’s always nice to be reminded of such perennial wisdom.
Too bad that, as a premise, it hardly supports the post’s dramatic title or its opening pseudo-historical timeline. Her timeline asserts that in the 1970s, the question was (somehow–who knows what this means?) “how well can you learn?” In the 1990s, it was “how fast and how much can you learn?” But today we have evolved! Now it’s about how quickly you can unlearn!
If we take the latter claim in any general sense, the argument is fallacious, of course. It is true that in the 1970s education theorists talked a lot about how well we learn; they still talk about that. It’s also true that there was a movement to accelerate education, especially among young children, which had its height in the 1990s and in the heyday of NCLB. But when Kathy Sierra next points out the homey, perfectly old-fashioned truth that we must change our habits to keep up with the times, she is changing the subject. The following argument contains a fallacy:
1. We should unlearn habits that do not conform to new developments.
2. New developments are now coming fast and furious.
3. Therefore, the important new virtue is not learning, but unlearning.
The premises (1 and 2) do not support the sweeping conclusion (3). I do not contradict myself when I maintain that we should still learn quickly and a lot (allegedly the “1990s” virtue–I thought it was an ancient virtue, but maybe that’s just me), even while maintaining that we should change our habits as they become outdated. The premises do support a much more modest conclusion, that being fast and flexible in how we change our habits is a new virtue. But to say so entails neither that “the future is unlearning, generally” nor that “the future is not learning, generally.” So this is a plain old logical fallacy. I leave as an exercise to the reader to name the fallacy.
Lest I be accused of misconstruing Kathy Sierra, let me add this. I know that she spends most of her post explaining how we should unlearn certain outdated habits. I agree that this is excellent and timely advice. But that does not stop her from titling her post “The future is not in learning…” and contrasting the new virtue of “how fast you can unlearn” with the old virtues of “how well you can learn” and “how fast and how much you can learn.” But the fact of the matter is that unlearning outdated habits is a very, very different kind of learning (or unlearning) from learning facts.
Besides, even if you say that what we should unlearn is certain facts, the facts tend to be about narrow, practical, and necessarily changeable fields, viz., technology and business. Just because technology and business are changing quickly, that doesn’t mean a lot of our knowledge about other topics is becoming uselessly outdated. If that’s the argument, it too is obviously fallacious.
So does Kathy Sierra deserve to be called an “anti-intellectual” for this argument? Well, on the one hand, one can’t take her argument at all seriously as an argument against “learning.” On the other hand, she does seem to have something of a disregard for logic, and if she doesn’t literally believe her title, she does seem to pander to the anti-intellectual sentiments of certain geeks. I hate to be uncharitable, and I wouldn’t want to accuse her of encouraging people to stop learning so much, but look–the anti-intellectual sentiment is in the title of her post. Yes, maybe she is merely gunning for traffic by pandering to geek anti-intellectualism. But why would she want to do that if she didn’t share their biases against learning?
UPDATE: see below. Kathy Sierra responds to point out that this is a six-year-old post. I don’t know quite why I thought it was posted today! But I’ve already made a fool of myself, and I’m not one to stop doing so after I’ve done it publicly, especially at someone else’s expense.